by William J. Stewart
Leviticus 10 tells of Nadab and Abihu, two of the sons of Aaron. Notice the first few verses:
Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. And Moses said to Aaron, ’This is what the LORD spoke, saying: ’By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified.’ So Aaron held his peace. (Leviticus 10:1-3)
Despite the fact they died in this short context, I suggest to you these two young men were excited about worshiping God. One does not pick up a censer nor put incense upon it unless they are wanting to worship the LORD. They had zeal with regard to worship. The problem was they didn’t worship according to God’s instruction.
The NKJV says the fire used was profane. We’re not told where they acquired the fire to burn the incense, but I suspect it wasn’t from a pagan temple or burning heap of trash. In the ESV and NIV, we find the word unauthorized instead. The fire they used and the source from which it came is not what God had prescribed. It was something He had not commanded them. They acted without authority. They made a decision regarding worship which was not their decision to make. And as a consequence, they died before the LORD.
Understandably, Aaron wanted to know what happened. How could it be that his sons, who sought to worship God died in the process. Moses’ explanation should be an eye-opener for everyone who is interested in worshiping the LORD—Nadab and Abihu did not treat God as holy (set apart), nor did they glorify Him in their actions. Claiming to glorify God and actually glorifying God are not the same thing. God is glorified when we do His will, not when we do our will and expect Him to accept it.
Aaron held his peace. His sons erred gravely in their approach before God. They used profane fire, unauthorized fire, strange fire (KJV, NASB). They failed to inquire of the LORD about the fire to burn the incense. They acted presumptuously. The source would be revealed in Leviticus 16.
The obvious lesson for God’s people from Nadab and Abihu is that we must worship God according to His desires and not our own. We want to do what He has authorized. The apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians:
…whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through Him. (Colossians 3:17)
We need authority for what we say and what we do. In the immediate context, Paul spoke about music in worship.
…teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. (Colossians 3:16)
What has God prescribed? What has He authorized? He wants us to teach one another as we worship Him in song. Implicit in that would be the need for our songs to have words (not a bunch of humming). But it is not enough to just have words—the words we sing must teach truth. The teaching in song is to help “the word of Christ” to “dwell in you richly.” That cannot happen if we are teaching one another false doctrines. Our songs must teach the truth.
Through the pen of the apostle, the Spirit of God gave a measure of variety to our singing. We can use psalms or hymns or spiritual songs. The psalms of David and others (we have 150 psalms which were inspired of God in our Bibles) were set to music, and these were deemed acceptable to use in worship to God. However we are not limited to the psalter. We are also free to use hymns and spiritual songs, so long as they teach truth.
Colossians 3:16 says this teaching of one another takes place by us singing. It is not God’s desire that a select few sing while the rest of us sit by as observers. His desire is congregational singing, a joint effort by all worshipers to sing praise to God and to teach one another in song. It matters not to God whether we can carry a tune in the proverbial bucket. He didn’t command us to have the best of our singers sing, He commanded that we all teach one another—that we all sing.
Let’s say it one more time—He wants us to sing. Colossians 3:16 says nothing about using an instrument. Ephesians 5:19, a parallel text, is also silent about the use of instrumental music. In fact, every text in the New Testament which speaks about our worship to God in song says sing, and none of them say a thing about using an instrument (Acts 16:25; Romans 15:8-9; 1 Corinthians 14:15; Ephesians 5:18-19; Colossians 3:16-17; Hebrews 2:11-12; James 5:13).
Instrumental music in worship is strange music, it is unauthorized music, it is profane music. Those who offer the LORD worship with the use of musical instruments are offering to Him what they like, not what He commanded. Worshipping God with instruments does not treat God as holy (set apart) nor does it glorify Him.
May our worship be according to the will of God. May we be willing to set aside our desires and likes and seek to obey His commands and instructions. Let us teach one another the truth of God’s way in our song service before the LORD.